Betty was in her early sixties when admitted to hospice for terminal breast cancer. It’s been several years since Betty passed away, but I’ve kept something she told me shelved in the back of my mind. So I called Betty’s sister, Loraine, and asked her permission to write this story.
Loraine reflected, “Betty found a lump in her breast about two years before she was diagnosed; but she didn’t go to the doctor until it was too late for her. She didn’t want to worry mom. Betty took after dad. She was always a little shy and a little difficult to strike up a conversation with. She was that way all her life. But she was very generous. She told me, ‘I would rather give to people. It makes me happy.’ If she bought herself something she would always ask me if I wanted one too. She was good to all of us. And she was always calm and she never complained about a thing. She was really easy to take care of.”
When I first met Betty she lived with Loraine and Elmer. Despite their love and attention, Betty seemed depressed, like she’d thrown in the towel, resigned. She missed her home, which was just down the road, so she moved back in. Loraine and Elmer were continually in and out providing care while respecting Betty’s privacy. As Betty’s condition declined it became even more difficult to strike up a conversation with her. But then suddenly and unexpectedly I witnessed Betty’s breakthrough. From one visit to the next, it was as if she was instantly transformed. She was more engaging and she appeared to have “the peace of God that surpasses all understanding”. (Philippians 4:4-7). I just had to ask, “What in the world has happened to you?” Betty simply smiled and replied, “Acceptance is a wonderful thing!”
Betty’s breakthrough reminds me of another long passed hospice patient and fellow pilgrim. Lucky was also in his sixties with cirrhosis of the liver. Lucky and I came to refer to his terminal illness as his “journey”. One day I asked, “Lucky, where are you on the road today?”, and he replied, “You know, I’ve been thinking about that word acceptance a lot lately. That’s an awfully big word. I’ve been thinking that if I can accept all these things that are happening to me as just a part of it (life), then I can go on and do what I can and need to do. But if I tell myself that it’s not supposed to be this way, then I’ll be miserable and make everyone around me miserable. I’ve found that I have to be careful what line of thinking I allow myself to fall into.”
Our hope for our hospice patients is that they will come to the point of acceptance without resignation; that they will turn their sighs into questions and then seek the answers, and thereby live with purpose until the day they die.
The “Serenity Prayer”, asks, “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” I’ve noticed that most people seem to focus on, and are sometimes able; to accept the things they cannot change. But doing so without also having the courage to change the things we can”, is resignation, not true acceptance.
I hope that you don’t think I’m implying that a person just needs to “get over it”, that you just need to “pull yourself up by your own boot straps”. Coming to the point of true acceptance is usually a very painful disillusioning process. My hope is that when you find yourself on the verge of resignation, that the words of our fellow pilgrims, Betty and Lucky, will find their way to your heart and mind, and give you the faith to believe that if they can do it, maybe you can too. My hope is that you too will be careful of what line of thinking you allow yourself to fall into and that you too can go on and do what you need to do.
“In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world (John 16:33).
Loren Hardin is a hospice social worker at Southern Ohio Medical Center and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 740-356-2525